You would find it hard to miss the talk about plans in the United Kingdom to allow what is often referred to in the media as “three-person IVF”. Journalists and commentators around the world have been reporting on the decision by members of the UK’s parliament to say yes to the new mitochondrial donation technique.
Mitochondria are found inside cells and generate energy so they are often described as being a bit like batteries. When someone has mitochondrial disease they don’t work properly, or produce enough energy, and this can lead to serious illness. Mitochondrial donation has never been used before, and the UK looks set to be the first country in the world to allow it.
Although mitochondrial donation uses IVF, this is not a fertility treatment. Rather, it is a technique which aims to prevent serious genetic diseases being passed from mother to baby.
In mitochondrial donation, embryos are created which contain genetic material from three people; both the parents and a female donor. Although the donor gives her egg, only her healthy mitochondria are used. None of the DNA which is responsible for the donor’s defining traits and makes her who she is will be used, so the baby will inherit these from her mother.
Does this mean that the child will have three parents?
Any baby born using this technique would only have two parents – a mother and a father. Although the baby will have a very tiny portion of mitochondrial DNA from the egg donor, this would not affect any defining characteristics.
Usually any woman who donates her eggs in the UK has to agree that if a child or children are born with the eggs, they will have the right to find out who she is once they reach adulthood. Mitochondrial donors will remain anonymous. This is because the egg donors are not the genetic mothers of any children resulting from their donation
Who will need this treatment?
This treatment is aimed at helping women who risk passing on mitochondrial disease to their children. Women may have a faulty mitochondrial gene but still be healthy. However, if they pass this on, their baby may be severely affected. Mitochondrial disease is very rare, but it can have a devastating impact. The symptoms are different from one person to another and some will manage to live with the disease, but it is usually progressive and can be fatal.
Will fertility patients be able to use three-person IVF?
This technique is not intended to be used by fertility patients at all, as it is not designed to help people who are having problems getting pregnant but to prevent people passing on genetic disease. It uses IVF techniques, but it is not a fertility treatment.
Although members of Parliament in the United Kingdom have voted in favour of allowing the technique, there is still some way to go before it will be available. The second chamber, the House of Lords, also has to vote and if this goes through it will only be provided at specialised centres which have been granted a licence to offer mitochondrial donation.
There has been some opposition to mitochondrial donation from those who fear it may not be safe or could be the first step on a slippery slope to designer babies. Others say we can be confident that this will never be the case as mitochondrial donation will be strictly regulated and will only be used to where there is a risk of a baby being born with a serious medical condition. In the UK, the move towards mitochondrial donation has been welcomed by families who have experience of mitochondrial disease.
Writer and journalist
Kate Brian is a journalist, writer and author of four books on motherhood and fertility, including The Complete Guide to IVF. Kate started writing about the patient perspective on infertility after having IVF herself.
Currently, she contributes to various types of media as an expert on fertility and writes her own blog, where she gives all the latest news and views on fertility issues, as well as useful advice and links for anyone trying to have a baby.
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